The American family, constantly reshaping its contours and configurations, is assuming yet another new look as a rising number of adults formally adopt other grown men and women, providing many of these fresh heirs with their first, true taste of home.
Some adoptees are in their 20s, and some almost 30, when they meet and eventually pick their parents, forging kinships through local courts that bind the adults legally as well as emotionally, filling voids for one person or, certain cases, for everyone involved.
“It’s definitely a miracle,” said Cassie Williams, 26, who was adopted in December 2011 by 67-year-old Mary Alice Shaw – four years after the two became housemates in southern Illinois following Shaw’s divorce. Cassie took Shaw’s maiden name for her own. A new birth certificate was issued to Williams, offering tangible proof of what she discovered in the process: “A sense of identity.”
“I come from a very broken background,” said Williams, a college student who also works at a children’s advocacy center in St. Louis. She had supported herself since age 14 after distancing from her biological mother. “While living here, I saw the family dynamic that (Shaw) had with her son, Chris, 24. It was like: 'Wow, OK, this is a family. This is a mother.' I had seen families on television. But a family unit was, until then, something of a mystery to me. ”
Adult adoptions are increasing, said Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption, an advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va. While the precise number is not tracked, dozens occur annually.
In most states, adopting adults is legal. Judges typically review the petitions. Common reasons cited include inheritance, the power to handle medical affairs, and simply seeking an official verification – a piece of government paper – affirming that a parent relationship has bloomed and is every bit as real as a biological link.
A handful of restrictions dot the legal landscape: Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio, experts say, only allow the adoptions of permanently disabled adults – or of an adult who has a long-established relationship with a foster parent or step-parent.
But for scattered people, including those who grew up in foster care, new parents are finally found through chance meetings. Jamari Hernandez, a 19-year-old woman, “bounced around” group homes for five years after she was removed from a biological mother with an alcohol addiction, she said. In the past two weeks ago, she was introduced via her agency to a couple with four grown children. The couple is interested in making Jamari part of their family. They’ve since met, talked and exchanged hugs, she told TODAY.
“I wanted a home base,” Jamari said. “…I wanted to find a family who would accept me for me and know I can go to them.”
“We want someone to call ‘family’ across time," Johnson said. "Adult adoptions will continue to happen more often because more folks are learning about it.”
His statement carries sweet irony. In June 2011, TODAY.com profiled three adults who met on the job at Nintendo, in Redmond, Wash. Jillian, then 29, initially struck a friendship with Sandra Titus, then 49, and her husband, Ross, then 46, around their mutual love of Boston terriers. In time, though, their triad began to mirror the connections displayed by parents and a daughter, including advice for Jillian, long estranged from her biological parents.
They hired an attorney. Three months later, on Nov. 18, 2010, they became a family when a judge approved the adoption. Jillian maintains her own residence in Seattle.
“Every day, I feel so lucky to be their daughter. It feels natural. I don’t have any craving to reach out to my biological family. I don’t feel like there’s anything missing. It just feels right,” Jillian Titus said last week. “It’s magical.”
They communicate 30 times daily via group texts. Every other Saturday is a “Family Day” get-together when they may enjoy a beer or crank out home-remodeling project’s at Jillian’s place.
“It’s just so easy. Jillian makes it that way," Sandra Titus said. "She’s still this delightful little person that we found six years ago, like it was meant to be."
Even before the article on Jillian was published, Mary Alice Shaw had been quietly mulling adopting her young housemate. They'd grown close over chats about Shaw's divorce, and as Shaw doled out motherly advice to Cassie. Shaw's adult son, Chris, fully backed the idea, too, as Cassie took him on shopping trips for hip clothes and after the trio took an overseas trip to Wales.
Shaw wasn’t sure such a union was legally viable. Then she found the Titus’s story via a Google search. She contacted Sandra for advice and followed it, hiring a lawyer to handle the paperwork. One month later, the would-be family and their attorney were standing in front of a judge, who sanctioned their petition.
"Even the judge wondered why we were doing this," Shaw said with a smile. "Our lives are one grand adventure. If I could see auras, (Cassie's) is probably in neon ... I always wondered: How could you care so much about someone you didn’t birth? But from the day she walked in, I just cared so much about her."
These days Shaw asks: "How many are out there who need to be adopted as adults but just did not fall into the situation that Jillian and Cassie fell into?"
"When I thought of a mother, I thought of a person to bring me Kleenex during a heartbreak, to bring me soup when I’m sick. She was that. She is that," Williams said. "When you don’t have a sense of identity and you find it, you’re comfortable in staying there.
"People who've had that their whole lives, who know where they belong, who feel warm, comfortable and loved, they don’t question what it would be like to not have that. I can see why it’s hard for others not to understand this," she added. "I proudly say my name is Cassandra Williams. That means something to me. There’s a lot of solidarity in knowing I’m the daughter and I’m the sister, that we are a family."
This is part of a week long series Choosing Adoption on TODAY. Join the discussion on Twitter at #AdoptionTODAY.